Skiers, snowboarders can’t wait for snow |

Skiers, snowboarders can’t wait for snow

by Chuck Smock, Sports editor

Skiers and snowboarders have been waiting patiently for the last two months, but many are starting to get a little itchy.

Last year at this time, more than a few season-pass holders already had enough days on the slopes to pay for their investment.

To put it mildly, the 1999-2000 ski season has gotten off to a slow start.

California Department of Water Resources officials estimated last week that the snowpack in the Lake Tahoe area of the Sierra Nevada is about 30 percent of normal.

Resorts and retailers throughout the Tahoe Basin have been trying to make the best of the situation. Representatives from both industries say things aren’t quite as bad as they seem.

Robert Daly, owner of Shore-Line Ski and Snowboards on Kingsbury Grade in Stateline, said business has been a little off this winter, but he had nearly a dozen customers in his shop late Monday afternoon.

“Up to now, we’re holding our own,” Daly said. “We’re doing pretty good. We’re doing it with bigger-ticket items, not the volume.”

Daly said his ski and snowboard rental business is down about 40 percent from a year ago. He’s making up some of the difference by renting bicycles, which are normally in storage at this time of year.

“The name of the game is diversity,” he said. “You have to be able to go where the market takes you.”

The Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays drive the early part of the ski season. For many, the tradition of spending late November and late December in the Sierra continues regardless of the snow conditions. What Mother Nature does in the first few days of 2000 likely will make or break this ski season, Daly said.

“The biggest issue, in my opinion, when the dung will hit the fan is the first two weeks of January,” he said. “There’s no reason to come up unless there’s snow.”

And there’s certainly no reason to stay if you make the long trip from Southern California or the Bay area, only to find conditions not to your liking. Just ask Torrance, Calif., residents Peter Ernster, 21, Jimmy Ernster, 19, and Janelle Wellmerling, 20, who spent Monday snowboarding the Nevada side of Heavenly, but decided to cut their week-long trip short by three days because of the snow conditions.

“You had to decide if you wanted to go on ice or rocks,” said Wellmerling, who is a student at El Camino College.

Peter Ernster, a senior at the University of Southern California, said he and his friends make at least three snowboarding trips each winter. They stay at his family’s cabin in Stateline and head for the resort that has the best snow.

He said they plan to return in January, but will watching for the next big storm to dump a fresh blanket of powder on the Sierra. He had a quick answer when asked if Monday’s conditions had discouraged him from wanting to come back.

“Hell, no,” Ernster said. “When it’s good, it doesn’t get any better than Tahoe.”

A tale to two resorts: north and south

“We’re actually doing pretty good,” said Erin Bernall, the public relations manager Northstar-at-Tahoe, who estimated the resort had 70 percent of its terrain open on Monday. “We’re relying heavily on snowmaking. We have the guns going every day.

“As long as we have the cold temperatures, it (snowmaking) has been our saving grace. We are open from top to bottom and have a run (Iron Horse) open on the backside.”

Bernall added that while the number of day visitors is down at Northstar this season, the resort’s lodging operations continues to see an occupancy rate of about 90 percent, less than a 10 percent drop from a year ago.

She also said – after making a point to acknowledge the fact that she was sitting behind a public relations desk (where rarely is heard a discouraging word) – that skiers say they’re having fun.

“We’re getting really great feedback,” Bernall said. “So many people come here because they want to ski the groomed runs. They want the cruiser (runs) and that’s the product we have right now.”

The bulk of the closed terrain at Northstar is the black-diamond runs on the backside of the mountain. The 320-foot half-pipe is open.

Kirkwood currently has 26 trails open, including many of the trails off Chair 6, providing terrain for skiers for all ability levels. The open runs represent about 40 percent of the skiable mountain at Kirkwood, which was 100-percent open at this time last year, according to Tania Magidson, the resort’s public relations and communications director.

“(The weather) has affected our numbers; we’re down,” she said. “But, overall, the response we’re getting from the people who come up is it’s a lot better than they thought it would be. The people who are here are happy and having a good time.”

Kirkwood recently announced a stay-and-ski-free program that will continue through the New Year’s celebration. Guests who rent a Kirkwood studio condo or hotel room will receive two free lift tickets. Rent a one-bedroom condo (starting at $219 for up to four people), and you’ll receive up to four free lift tickets, a savings of $184.

The resort still has rooms open for this weekend’s activities, which includes Friday’s millennium celebration, featuring a torchlight parade, fireworks display, live music in the Off The Wall Bar and a DJ party in the Mountain Club Coffee House and Deli.

Call (800) 967-7500 for more information about Kirkwood.